Aaron Bobrow-Strain is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon Press, 2012). His writings have also appeared in Gastronomica and The Believer. Here is his impassioned ode to stale bread:
In July 1913, The New York Times announced a Dutch invention—“exceedingly complex and scientific”—that would keep bread fresh “for an indefinite period.” Essentially a glorified ice chest, this was one of many early twentieth-century innovations that promised to banish stale bread forever.
By 1913, industry had begun to tame the unruly, biological nature of dough to the relentless pace of assembly line production. Consumers leaned breathlessly toward a future of bountiful cheap food, leisure, and social harmony made possible by industrial bread. Each slice of modern bread was an edible utopia.
Only one unacceptable reminder of bread’s natural life remained—one tiny realm of imperfection unconquered by science: even the most modern bread drifted inexorably toward entropy.
One hundred years later, the application of chemistry and engineering to bread baking has still not triumphed over staleness. Contrary to popular urban myth, even Wonder Bread decays. And I, for one, am glad.
What would we do without stale bread? How would we make the best French toast, top soups and salads with croutons, thicken sauces, or feed the pigeons?
I just wrote a book about America’s complicated love-hate relationship with industrial food, told through the story of our most iconic industrial food: super-soft sliced white bread. I’m interested in why past efforts to change Americans’ industrial diet have succeeded and failed (mostly failed), and what present-day food reformers can do better. Meanwhile, we’re going to have a lot of stale bread sitting around. Don’t just throw it out.
Here are two of my favorite uses for stale bread, drawn from the Mediterranean world, where salvaging old loaves is an art:
For slightly stale European artisan bread, make a Spanish bocadillo. Drizzle olive oil over two slices, of bread grill them in a hot pan, and then rub the crispy exterior with raw garlic. Sprinkle on a little salt and lemon juice. Then use the grilled bread as the base for a Spanish sandwich. My favorite contains garlicky braised kale, good sheep cheese, and a fried egg.
For really stale European artisan bread, try Italian ribollita. This is a use-up-what-you-have-around stew from Tuscany. Its vegetable ingredients vary depending on what you find at the bottom of your refrigerator—but it always includes cannellini beans and hunks of stale bread. “Ribollita” means “re-boiled” and refers to the process of softening stale bread in the stew. For best results, add the bread to the stew early enough to allow it to soak up lots of rich liquid, but late enough that it doesn’t dissolve completely. Recipes for ribollita can be found in many places. I adapted mine a long time ago from The Rose Pistola Cookbook.
P.S. Around the turn of the last century both Albert Edward Prince of Wales and John D. Rockefeller swore that a diet of stale bread could cure dyspepsia. Use your stale bread and you may never need to chew another Tums!
Editor’s Note: For a chance to win a copy of White Bread, comment below about your preferred use for stale bread. Entries taken until Friday at 5pm.